In September this year, the Macedonian government announced one of the most ambitious educational technology projects ever proposed: to provide 180,000 of its school-age children with computer access.
The former Yugoslav republic has latched onto the potential of IT to drag it ahead of its Balkan neighbours and committed to transforming a largely agricultural and industrial economy into a knowledge-based one.
According to Ivo Ivanovsky, Macedonia's minister for information society: "The Computer for Every Child initiative is the largest and most important education project undertaken in the 15-year history of the Republic of Macedonia... Our goal is to build a knowledge-based economy in which our entire workforce is educated using information and communication technology within the next five years."
Aside from the logistics of rolling out new infrastructure on this scale, the obvious question is, how can a country that hardly ranks as one of the world's financial powerhouses afford a project that would stretch the resources of the richest economy? Step forward thin-client specialist NComputing and its cut-down, bloat-free approach to personal computing. The company's X-300 solid state devices allow a standard PC to act as a mini server, powering up to seven thin-client terminals.
ZDNet.co.uk caught up with NComputing's chief executive Stephen A Dukker to find out why Macedonia is betting its children's future on his company's technology, and why thin client is a better answer to bridging the digital divide than a green laptop.
What do you want to achieve with NComputing that other IT manufacturers haven't done already?
We are focused on dramatically increasing the base [of computer users] by reducing the cost. The user market has been stuck for nearly 10 years at 850 million users, which is generally seen as excluding the developing world. Gartner and IDC claim the developing world represents anything from 755 million to 855 million new users, but there are also large numbers in the so-called under-served markets in our own home communities.
In the US, the most crying need for computing suites is in education — as in the UK — where educational institutions are trying to achieve the goal of one computer station per student. In the US we are at the miserable level of one computer station per six or seven students.
If we find a solution to enable this next major wave of users, the implications on existing usage patterns and users are quite profound as well. If we find ways to open up these very large markets — that is primarily economic — we could revolutionise efficiency and usage of computing in the developed world too, as there is nothing in the solution that is unique to the developing world.
The project you are currently engaged with in Macedonia sounds like a massive undertaking, and possibly a record in terms of a thin-client deployment.
As far as we know this is the first country-wide, full education deployment where they made the commitment to equip every single student seat in every single school in Macedonia with a computer workstation, and achieve a one-to-one student-to-computer rating, which is the best in the world.
They will be rolling out 180,000 student seats, of which 100,000 are being done right now over a five-month period. They are going into high schools because those students are the closest to entering the workplace and they want them to be computer-literate. Next year 80,000 additional seats are being rolled out into primary schools.
These 180,000 seats make up 50 percent of the students in the country because they don't have enough classrooms for all the students, so in essence half of the students go to school in the morning from 6am till noon, and the other half go from noon to 6pm. This way, 180,000 seats service nearly 40,000 students.
What's the background to this deal? How can a relatively poor country such as Macedonia justify spending this much money and effort on computing?
With the election of the new prime minister [Nikola Gruevski in August 2006], his particular agenda that got him elected was a major commitment to upgrading the educational infrastructure of the country. If they were to join the ranks of the developed world, they had to be a knowledge- and information-based society.
This is the single largest commitment for funds in the history of the country. They committed €30m (£22m) out of a total country budget of €1.8bn (£1.3bn) for education. They said that their usual education budget is about €800,000 (£580,000) — so that's a huge step forward. The people in the country agreed to a special tax assessment to help pay for this as they recognised that this was going to be the most important investment they could make.
Most of the former Yugoslavian countries, Bosnia, Croatia, and so on, are going out for education restructuring in 2008, and we hope this is going to be...